Crisis exists where answers do not. From there, it grows, chewing at the fixtures that keep you in place till they’re so far apart it’s impossible to piece them together, and you’re left with nothing to hold onto. The old tools—effort, resilience, hope—stop working. “Skeleton Crew,” Dominique Morisseau’s ordinary, monumental drama now being performed at Center Stage, excavates crisis as it expands.
“I feel like nothing’s familiar anymore,” says Faye (played by Stephanie Berry), a veteran auto factory worker staring down joblessness in Morisseau’s Detroit. She once saw herself as a warrior woman, but that foundation is wavering. She’s had some time to sit with the knowledge that the plant is going to be shut down, that she and her fellow workers for whom she’s responsible as union rep will join the casualties of the 2008 recession. In this moment, she says to Reggie (Sekou Laidlow), the plant’s foreman—he and Faye go way back—she recognizes no before and foresees no after. She offers this confessional in the employee break room, where the entire play is set, surrounded by lockers accented with HOPE-era Obama campaign stickers.
In “Skeleton Crew,” the final installment of Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy (a nod to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle) after “Detroit ‘67” (which appeared in Center Stage’s 2015/2016 season) and “Paradise Blue” (set in 1949), crisis has consumed the industry that once made Detroit the Motor City. The play’s title refers the bare-bones assembly line keeping the city’s last exporting auto plant afloat, while also gesturing toward the demise of their livelihoods. All familiarity has disappeared—or become unrecognizable—and that hits particularly hard for this crew, whose labor is based in routine.
At the center is Faye, the workplace matriarch who’s put in nearly 30 years at the plant. She has loved and lost, survived cancer, and as a single parent raised a son who would grow up to reject her as she started dating women—Faye doesn’t hesitate to remind her coworkers that she’s seen it all, or a lot anyway. She wears her conquered hardships as a badge, and the fact that she’s made it through everything in one piece gives her license to gamble constantly on the little money she has and keep up a chain smoking habit while she’s at it, despite her health record and the notice Reggie’s posted in the break room that reads “NO SMOKING FAYE.”
Then there’s Dez (Gabriel Lawrence) and Shanita (Brittany Bellizeare), both younger factory crew members who share Faye’s skill and enthusiasm for the work. A second-generation autoworker who, by the way, is visibly pregnant, Shanita in particular loves the craft and takes pride in knowing her handiwork will go on to bear witness to important moments in the lives of everyday people. She’ll shut off the boombox playing Dez’s pump-up anthem (‘Get Dis Money’ by Detroit rap crew Slum Village, who have also endured plenty of attrition) so she can listen to the steadying music of cranking and clanging on the line: “Sounds like life happening.” Dez too takes pleasure in the grind but aspires to run his own car shop. It’s not even finished yet and he’s already haunted by the “ghosts” on the assembly line. Despite his practical optimism— “better to wait till the last possible minute to start worrying,” he says—fear commands him; he packs a gun in his backpack every day, which inevitably gets him into deep shit.
Morisseau builds up the chemistry between Dez and Shanita—he knows how she takes her coffee!—and, at times, it’s undeniably heartwarming. But the charm is unfortunate: Here we have another representation of a meant-to-be pair that begins with incessant sexual harassment (at the beginning of the play, Dez is at strike number 5,062 by Shanita’s count) and ends with the harasser getting what he wanted and his target realizing this is want she wanted all along, despite resisting all those times before. A tired, toxic trope that mars Morisseau’s otherwise thoughtful storytelling.
In this intimate reckoning of the modern era’s greatest financial crisis, Morisseau pays no mind to the suits responsible for and complicit in the devastation; they’re not worth any time on her stage. They appear only though the battles fought offstage by Reggie, who is charged with the impossible task of pleasing everyone. He comes from the same world as his employees, the same neighborhood; a high school dropout who’s since pulled himself up into white collar comfort more or less, but only to find himself isolated. He identifies with neither his employees, some of whom—Dez in particular—figure he’s rejected where he came from; nor his own employers, who understand nothing of those origins.
Under the incisive direction of Nicole A. Watson, the cast delivers the rhythm in the script’s lyricism while cutting deep into the tension that breaks it up. Morisseau tells each character’s story lovingly—the most notable divergence from her muse and fellow social observer Wilson, who offered just a sliver of redemption to his great tragic hero Troy Maxson. For people inching closer toward rock bottom in a city depicted here as thoroughly “desperate,” all four characters remain true to themselves and to each other, even as they must reassess what all that means. They don’t slump under the weight, although that doesn’t mean they follow the increasingly irrelevant rules keeping them all in line: Among other transgressions, someone has been stealing parts from the plant for resale.
As all this unfolds, a mountain of crumpled car scraps peaks from behind the break room walls, a shadow looming over the brightly-lit, well-loved gathering spot. In the play’s final moments, the factory floor is revealed in full, barren except for the piled remnants. It’s a chilling image, but there’s a sense that this is only a graveyard for the industry; the assembly line ghosts of Dez’s imagination are all but absent. The experiences that took place here—the identities forged, the bonds strengthened—can be taken apart and put back together beyond the factory.
“Skeleton Crew,” a part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, continues through March 4 at Baltimore Center Stage.